The 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic: Our Story
One family's story of reinvention and survival during one of the hardest years yet.
Well here we are, 2020 is behind us. After almost 40 years of building our family business, this is something we could have never seen coming. We have always been prepared for the next recession or a downturn in business, but never for the complete loss of an entire season (and more). My wife Karla and I discuss almost daily, about how this has turned out to be one of the darkest times of our lives… or was it? We were put to the ultimate test in many ways but looking back, the Pandemic actually brought out the best in so many people that it was overwhelming at times. I would like to touch on the many positives that we have experienced due to (or in spite of) the Covid-19 Pandemic that was 2020.
I admit, I am not normally a sentimental person, but last summer while flying along contemplating life, I was brought to tears more than once. Countless times, while talking to our many guests on the phone, I would get choked up and could hardly talk. Early spring, after the sports shows were finished, we were on track for the best year ever for our business. Tourism was on a sharp upward climb and we were ready and anxious to get going! As May approached, and the Pandemic had firmly settled in, it looked like we might lose the first two weeks of the season. Not the greatest news, but we could handle losing a couple of weeks – no problem! Our business is unique in that it is almost entirely seasonal in nature, almost 100% of our revenue is based on travellers from the US, and we have a very short window of time to make our annual income. After purchasing a new Aircraft in December, very much “pre-pandemic”, having to pay a winters’ worth of maintenance on our fleet of aircraft, along with huge insurance bills, all the start-up costs and wages associated with opening for the season, the winter’s deposit money goes very quickly with nothing more coming in.
We kept busy during the first two weeks of the season, getting our Camps and Outposts ready for the season, confident that the season was just delayed and would take off shortly. Soon came the next big blow… we were faced with losing the entire month of June! In this business, typically over half of the season’s revenue is generated by the end of June, so with this message came a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. No business in June and the bills keep coming, including huge payments on the new airplane, staff to pay, high insurance premiums on airplanes and camps NOT in use. We, along with all our counterparts in this industry were going to be in big trouble…
Our phone never stopped ringing, with guests calling and wanting answers that we were not able to provide them, feeling the frustration as much as we were at the time. Karla worked tirelessly, moving groups to later in the season, keeping hopes alive that we might actually be able to salvage something from what was looking to be nothing short of a catastrophe.
We knew that we had to keep our operation moving forward for a July 1st opening, including prepping pilots and other support staff, along with getting our equipment ready for whatever season we would have once the border opened. We were now in serious trouble, as the bills kept mounting, and we had almost NOTHING coming in! All we had were a few flights in the Northern Communities which didn’t even scratch the surface of our financial struggles. I will never forget those mornings of having to meet with our staff and pilots, everyone waiting for a plan for the day. We luckily had some lumber left from the previous season, so we were able to do a bit of maintenance work at a couple of Outposts to keep us busy for a few days. As June went on, every day got tougher to keep positive and keep the morale up among my family and staff. My main concern was to take care of my employees which also consists of my daughter Meagan and her family, and my nephew Chris who had been with us since his early teen years.
My main job was always to give everyone direction, tell jokes and keep the work environment as positive as possible. As June went on, it was getting tougher and tougher to keep up the front. For the first time in my life, I was getting down and just floundering trying to figure a way through this mess. Being the guy who always has a plan and quick answer, I was stuck in a very dark place along with many others in this Industry. Every evening I would be on the phone with fellow Outfitters, and we would exchange thoughts and ideas about the situation in which we found ourselves. All of us were hopeful that when the border opened on July 1st, we were sure we could still make something of the season.
Then came the next hit… the border would not open for July either! Now we’re faced with laying off staff or selling off equipment and Outposts, but who would buy in these times? Our staff could see the stress on our faces, as we could no longer hide it. About our staff, I cannot say enough about the A-Team that works for us. They all took pay cuts and worked twice as hard. A couple of our staff worked all summer and would not accept ANY payment at all. Their kindness cannot ever be re-paid, and their generosity means more to us than they will ever know!
One day I flew North to take some gas to a campsite where some friends of ours from one of the Northern First Nations Communities were spending time. I had to be out by myself and try to clear my head, after which I enjoyed a visit with my friends. The lady asked me if I thought we were going to have any tourists this summer, and I said that it wasn’t looking good, and we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do. I will never forget her kind smile, when she next said “Mr. Clark, since you and your pilots have no income, could you build us a house on this lake, and we would pay you over time, a little bit each month?” I was overwhelmed by her sincerity, and even though we didn’t have a lot of extra money to put out for materials to do the job, I knew in my heart that we had to do it. I told my crew that we had a job to do, and while It was nothing that would compare with the tourism dollars that we were used to, it was a plan so it was time to get to work!
This build turned out to be a tougher job than expected with the extreme heat and excessive bugs, but nobody complained at all and everyone became carpenters in a short time. We were just happy to be doing something constructive! That couple has already paid off their house, much earlier than they had anticipated. We are very grateful for their friendship, and for “lighting a fire” under us to keep going!
This job was the beginning of our mental recovery. As word got around to the other Communities in the North, we were busy the rest of the summer building many more cabins, docks, decks, and sheds… whatever anyone wanted. No big money, but enough to pay the bills and keep our crew employed. Karla and Meagan had a very tough job dealing with all the guests, rescheduling trips and trying to remain hopeful for ourselves AND for our guests who so looked forward to their trip to Clark’s Resorts and Outposts. We continued to be overwhelmed by the generosity of many of our loyal guests, who insisted that we keep their deposit to help us get through and turned around and sent even more deposit money to be put against their next years’ trip. Once again, the generosity and compassion of these folks was almost too much. I couldn’t even talk at times for getting choked up on the phone…..we will never forget those folks and their heartfelt support!
We did have some Canadian guests who took Outpost trips over the summer or stayed at one of our drive in camps. We are very grateful for their continued support and look forward to their visits in the future. Another memorable event that took place last summer was the Red Lake fire and the ensuing evacuation of the Community. As I was getting ready for bed one night, my daughter informed me that a fire was getting dangerously close to Red Lake, and that the residents were facing an emergency evacuation. Many of the people had no place to go, so we had to help them. We rallied the troops late in the evening and readied the cabins and trailers for the onslaught of families looking for safe shelter for the night and beyond. We were up the entire night, getting people settled in our 18 cabins at both drive in camps, plus the several RV’s normally housing staff but that remained vacant. Meagan was busy on her phone all night, coordinating everyone, and by morning we had everyone settled in. I could only put myself in this situation, having to leave at a moment’s notice with family and pets, wondering where were we going to sleep?? We had a full house, taking as many people as we could possibly handle. In doing so, we did not gain financially, but what we received was much more valuable – a sense of purpose, which we were sorely lacking at the time. As it turns out, we needed them as much as they needed us! We received food donations from Salvation Army and drinking water from Sysco. Many friends and family also jumped in to help and donate their time. The display of generosity and selflessness was very touching and it brought some light to these dark times.
As the summer wore on, it was becoming more and more evident that the border was not going to open at all. Also, it was becoming apparent that there was going to be no meaningful assistance or even acknowledgement coming our way from the government. We had always believed that diversification was the key to success, offering the ability to adapt to changing situations. The stakes were now higher than ever, and we were faced with completely “re-inventing” ourselves to get through the winter and to survive whatever else would come our way during the on-going Pandemic which was showing no signs of going anywhere anytime soon! We continued hauling freight to the Northern Communities, as we had started in the summer, and this business has grown exponentially. We are forever grateful for the support from our friends in the North, and we will never let them down!
As fall came, we moved our Operation to the Dryden Airport. We would like to thank the Manager and Staff as they have gone out of their way to welcome us and help us settle in – what a great bunch! A company of our size requires more diversification that most to be sustainable, so we continued to evolve, opening up a new bait and tackle shop in a vacant property in Dryden. This way, we are able to keep utilizing the bait business that we have built over almost 4 decades, and in which we have a huge financial investment. We can also keep Chris busy trapping minnows again. We continue to be overwhelmed from the support from the residents of Dryden and the surrounding area and we were so fortunate to find 3 of the best employees that we could ask for!
In spite of the tough times, we have so much to be thankful for… Karla and I both have our parents in our lives offering their support in all that we do. We are especially grateful to have Zack and Meagan nearby with three of our grandkids, and our son Davis & Faith with our granddaughter Aizlyn just a short distance away as well. I have to say, even though the Covid-19 Pandemic is far from over, I feel our engines are now banging on at least two cylinders, and even though we are set back a few years we have our families and our health. There is now light at the end of the tunnel! We realize that we are only a small part of the Tourism Industry in Northwestern Ontario, and we feel for everyone who’s in the same boat. Keep your heads up, keep in touch, and we’ll get through this together!
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
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